This past semester, I had my students focus their comparison and contrast papers on advertising and how it impacts our views on society. They could focus on any aspect — racism, sexism, consumerism, etc. — but they had to use the ads to show how advertising portrayed the topic. Most of them had not understood the full impact of advertising on the consumer until we started talking about it and they began their research. Inundated with sexist commercials that targeted both men and women in selling the most innocuous items — like hamburgers or cars — made them think critically about media’s impact on the way we look at one another as people and as gender constructs.
For those of us who have grown into adulthood without television and technology like the younger generation of kids who know more about smart phones and computers than we do, we understand the turn that advertising has taken. We see things today — on television and in magazines — that we never saw before. But for our kids, this is all they have known.
Here’s a video created by my friend and author, Ellin Stebbins Waldal, who recently published her book, Tornado Warning, on her experiences with teen dating violence. This video shows us — page by page — what our kids are exposed to daily. And just when you think it’s too much, Ellin’s video turns to how we are doing the same thing to little girls – teaching them early that it’s OK to be objectified, sexified, glorified for beauty and body only.
Because they see it all the time, they think it is normal. This is what we mean when we say that sexism and sexual abuse and violence against women are normalized. Children are growing up thinking there is nothing wrong with sex trafficking – they’re sex workers, after all. They’re growing up thinking there is nothing wrong with selling burgers in an image where the burgers represent two well-rounded breasts. It’s funny. There’s nothing wrong with taking off your clothes to protest rape culture. It’s making a statement.
The attitudes we assume about boys and girls have already been normalized. We cite stereotypes like “boys are better in math than girls; it’s a scientific fact,” and “girls are emotional, irrational, hormonal,” as if they are based on facts. But they are not. Just because a few women are cautious behind the wheel of a car doesn’t mean that all women cannot drive. And just because advertisers can sell cars and burgers by showing female flesh and presenting it as meat and sellable doesn’t mean they should be allowed to.
But kids watching these commercials think that there is nothing wrong about this representation. Why? Because it’s on television. It’s on the ads on the side of buses and in the interior of trains. It’s everywhere. Brainwashing and normalizing are the same thing when it comes to replaying the sexist and degrading images our children see.
And now ads have little girls dressed like women, draped over couches, their hair up, makeup covering their innocent faces, and they do it because we allow it. We allow these commercials into our home, into our world, and then we tell our kids it’s OK for them to do it for money and success. It’s OK to sell themselves. It’s OK to compromise and objectify themselves and others because it’s normal. Look, everyone is doing it.
If Ellin’s compilation of images doesn’t make you tremble and frown with dissapointment and disgust, I don’t know what will. Perhaps we’re already brainwashed.